If the dining room is the sun and the kitchen is the moon, the bathroom is the rising sign of any restaurant.
Restaurant aesthetic has taken on new importance in the age of Instagram, when the decor matters as much as what’s being plated. That includes restaurant bathrooms, a prime site for aesthetic virtue signaling — courtesy of fancy soaps and creams (bolted into the walls with medieval-looking contraptions) and also candles.
Why candles? Candles and scents help restaurants tap into a broader sensory experience. When Danu Kennedy, design director at hospitality interior design company Parts and Labor Design, is designing a restaurant interior, her team considers how scent interplays with all other sensory elements. And whereas in hotels candles are often included in a broader “scent package,” restaurateurs undertake more of an “individualistic pursuit” to find the right scent, says Kennedy, and it’s up to her team to find the most suitable one. The Grill, for example, employs a woody, masculine scent to match the “steakhouse” spirit, whereas Benno has more feminine, floral scents to match the decor. Like picking a fancy hand soap, “we would want to tie in the scent to the overall aesthetic,” says Kennedy. (Though it should be noted that any self-respecting restaurant keeps its scented candles tucked away in the bathroom to avoid disrupting the dining experience, so hinged as it is on smell.)
Candles have also become an essential element of restaurant design because of the homeyness they impart. “It’s such a simple thing to do — it brings a human element that makes it feel quite residential,” says Kennedy. More and more restaurants are striving to capture that feeling of “home” via their design choices, and all the plants and layered area rugs and candles provide that sense of homey intimacy.
Perhaps most importantly, such touches — aided and abetted by social media’s fixation on all things aspirational — make diners feel like they’re dabbling in everyday luxury. Restaurant bathroom candles are most noticed when they are fancy restaurant bathroom candles. Cervo’s and Hart’s in New York City both use a local company Cavern in their bathrooms; Estela and Cafe Altro Paradiso use Aesop room scents (mandarin and cedar and the Catherine oil burner blend, respectively); and Frenchette uses Diptyque diffusers in lavender. Such bougie candles and fragrances are pricey and, as with any successful luxury item, embody a strong brand identity. The conspicuous placement of such high-end items can convey all sorts of messages (especially when captured in a bathroom selfie) — in this case, about the restaurant and the type of person who dines there.
So what does a candle or scent brand communicate? Diptyque is put-together and reliable, while Boy Smells is a little cheeky. A Byredo candle is the cool minimalist with a maximalist appreciation for quality (and budget). Cire Trudon is established opulence, and Aesop is upscale simplicity. DS & Durga is chic but down-to-earth, Mrs. Meyer’s is unfussy and wholesome, and Le Labo is the luxury of aimlessly meandering around Soho.
As a restaurateur or an interior designer, you place these candles in the bathroom because you want something to be inferred by those that can pick up the signals. (Downtown NYC restaurant Dimes is a strong enough lifestyle brand in its own that it makes its own candles, which communicate that… you’re cool enough to dine at Dimes.) And while restaurants are trying to convey a certain vibe that a luxury candle can provide, the candle or fragrance brand is probably trying to avoid saturation and place itself in only the most on-brand spaces. What better way for both parties to differentiate themselves than joining together, in a Venn Diagram of luxury, to attract the type of customer who can afford to frequent the restaurant and buy the product?
But such seductive virtue signaling can be fleeting: Until restaurateurs can figure out some contraption to keep them in bathrooms, a lot of candles are stolen. This comes with the territory, Kennedy says: “Candles can have molten wax, so there’s more of a hesitation [than with soaps] — but there’s an attitude that if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen.” Win Son tries to put locally made, Taiwanese-American soy candles from Ilha, but according to co-owner Trigg Brown, “They always get stolen.”
In order to cut costs, some restaurants opt for a smaller local candlemaker instead of a premium candle that goes for $60 or more. Other restaurants just keep replacing them — once you have a Bentley, you can’t let people see you in a Honda. Plus, the very fact that a restaurant that invests in an expensive item that’s perpetually stolen communicates a certain commitment to taste, right?
So which candle should you buy?
Despite my healthy candle knowledge, I only own one luxury candle, it was gifted to me, and I must confess that I only spark it if I have a dinner party — it adds that extra element of warmth and sensual pleasure (please don’t judge me, I’m a Taurus). But if you are buying...
One of the most popular premium scented candles is Diptyque’s Baies, with its blackcurrant, rose, and leafy green notes that make any bathroom smell fresh without pressing the stereotypical bathroom scent buttons of eucalyptus and citrus. Other excellent Diptyque scents include Feu de Bois and Figuier. For those that want to venture out, DS & Durga’s Portable Fireplace candle is self-explanatory, and Le Labo’s Santal 26 candle has notes of amber, cocoa, vanilla, cedar, and sandalwood, to name just a few. It also inspired the now remarkably popular perfume Santal 33, which several years ago graduated from cool-person territory to the mainstream (an affront to its target audience).
Byredo’s Bibliotheque candle has notes of plum, patchouli, and leather, which pairs well with the warm romantic light that it gives off. For those that want their dining room or bathroom to have something truly luxe and unique, Tom Ford’s Fucking Fabulous (I mean, come on) and Cire Trudon’s Abd-El-Kader both fall into the “staggeringly expensive” range ($105 - $108). Another premium brand hailing from Japan, RetaW’s Allen candle has sour lily notes that are clean and unfussy.
As for those that want something a little less expensive but still cool, Boy Smells does a fantastic job not just with its Kush candles, but also Prunus, with notes of oakwood, fig, plum, vanilla and yuzu.
And for the sensitive sweethearts out there that would prefer to keep their scents to a minimum but their candles still interesting, I cannot recommend Area Ware’s Goober candles enough. They’re interesting to look at, come in cute colors, and they’re called “goober.” I rest my case.
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